Coalition musical chairs: As public trust dips, it’s all about the politicians
Coalition-making and breaking, and the shuffling of premiers, is what gets politicians into power. But this does little to reverse drooping public trust in institutions and political parties, and increasing electoral opt-out. A new kind of politician is needed.
With public trust in institutions and political parties dropping below the 30% mark — and voter turnout declining across elections in the decade from 2009 — alarm bells should be going off across South Africa’s constitutional democracy.
That this hasn’t really happened signals a fixation with power by the political elites who have perhaps grown too accustomed to relying on the odd PR stunt like kissing babies or even grannies, and visiting pre-prepped sites with friendly cameras. Delivery of basic services, safety and security for ordinary people and effective public goods from trains to identification documents — not so much.
The recent goings-on at the Johannesburg metro are illustrative, but they’re not isolated. Nelson Mandela Bay metro has had a revolving door of municipal executives headed by various ANC and opposition coalitions. It’s repeated, perhaps not quite as dramatically, in plenty of councils across South Africa.
But talk from the DA’s now ex-mayor of Joburg, Mpho Phalatse, of the “coalition of corruption” with the ANC having taken over the city council, is just that — talk. And political rhetoric.
In a broad sweep, focus was lost amid arrogance all round. The DA concentrated rigidly on the small print of coalition cooperation to reportedly cold shoulder others, who then — with their noses out of joint — decided to teach that party a lesson by turning to the ANC, which had struggled to find its voice on the opposition benches.
And so coalition musical chairs are the new floor-crossing to shift political power and, crucially, access to the coffers of the state.
No one must be surprised that the ANC would manoeuvre to get back into power.
“(E)xposing the divisions and moral bankruptcy of the opposition” and re-taking control to remain the “strategic centre of power” — as the governing ANC lingo goes — arises from its 2017 Nasrec conference resolution.
“Where the outcome of an election does not give the ANC an outright majority, it must consider entering into strategic governance partnerships or other forms of coalition arrangements in order to gain access to state power,” that resolution states.
And that’s what happened in Johannesburg and, repeatedly, in Nelson Mandela Bay metro and elsewhere.
Residents, meanwhile, are left with rolling outages of electricity and water, which in turn trigger deteriorating hospital and clinic hygiene, potholes and non-functioning traffic lights. The list goes on.
No amount of pretty words, or PR visits, will change residents’ lived experience of crumbling municipal infrastructure. And neither will a politician making yet another announcement. Because announcements are not governance; neither is rattling off statistics to illustrate a given situation.
Against this backdrop, perhaps, it’s no surprise two recent surveys show that public trust in institutions and political parties is drooping — and dropping.
Public trust in political parties in 2021 stood at 19%, according to the Human Science Research Council’s (HSRC) longitudinal research from 1998. It did not distinguish between governing and opposition parties, for which the Afrobarometer survey pegged public trust at 27% for the ANC — President Cyril Ramaphosa did a bit better with 38% — and 24% for the opposition.
Parliament scored 28% public trust levels, according to Afrobarometer, with the HSRC showing 28% for national government.
Councils — the so-called coalface of service delivery — scored the lowest at 24%, according to both the HSRC and Afrobarometer surveys.
This signals councillors, mayors and other municipal personalities’ pledges in electioneering campaigns — and subsequent coalition-making and breaking — are not believed by citizens and residents.
And that translates into disengagement from a most basic democratic practice — casting ballots. Voter turnout dropped by some 12 percentage points to 45.86% in 2021 local government polls; down from 57.94% in the 2016 municipal elections, according to Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) statistics.
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National elections echo this: voter turnout stood at 66.05% in the 2019 elections, down from 77.3% in the 2009 poll.
Crucially, both surveys presented at a late September IEC seminar show an increase in the number of those who would be ready to ditch democracy — if jobs, houses, security and services were delivered.
The HSRC noted that 23% of respondents, up from 15% in 2011, agreed that a non-democratic government could be preferable. The Afrobarometer survey reflects a similar response, rising to 71% among the 18 to 24 group. The youth have been hardest hit by joblessness, and this age bracket is unfamiliar with apartheid-era repression.
This research signals a real possibility of further disengagement from a political and democratic system that almost six in 10 people say does nothing, or little, for them.
While the display of, let’s put it bluntly, a crude pursuit of power, position and privilege seems most pronounced at local government, it’s not isolated there.
Two premiers bowed out after losing their ANC chairperson posts in recent elective conferences, while a third moved quickly to accommodate the newly elected ANC provincial chairperson as MEC, and a fourth took a bit of time to do likewise.
On Thursday, Gauteng’s new premier Panyaza Lesufi took over from David Makhura, who had resigned two days earlier amid insistence that this was not a recall, but a fulfilment of his February decision not to contest the ANC provincial chairpersonship again. Makhura also resigned as a member of the Gauteng legislature.
In early August, Sihle Zikalala tendered his resignation as KwaZulu-Natal premier shortly after losing the provincial party chairpersonship elective contest. He remained in the provincial executive as MEC for cooperative governance.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Limpopo Premier Stanley Mathabatha included in his executive two of the provincial ANC top officials elected in June — his ANC deputy Florence Radzilani and party treasurer Nakedi Sibanda-Kekana. In May, Mpumalanga’s newly elected ANC chairperson Mandla Ndlovu was appointed cooperative governance MEC.
Nothing in governance required the change of premiership in either Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal. None of these shifts is anything more than ANC power politics. It’s all about governing party politics in the run-up to the crucial 2024 elections in which, pundits say, the ANC is no longer assured an easy majority.
Consider this for the 2024 elections. Let’s call it a cooperative working alliance of Songezo Zibi, author, ex-editor and corporate professional, whose Rivonia Circle is already hosting community workshops on active citizenship tools; Mcebisi Jonas, the ex-deputy finance minister who stood up to the Guptas and most recently lobbied across the Eastern Cape and elsewhere for a different take on politics; with Mmusi Maimane, who since going it alone has somewhat dithered, but successfully litigated for independents in electoral contests, and now leads Build One South Africa (Bosa).
Distinctly younger, with a sharper more 21st century, less Cold War outlook, it’s a combo that could cut across the trenches of political loyalty. As a fresh put-together, it’s not shackled to that this-is-how-we-do-things attitude, or networks of patronage.
Such a cooperative working alliance, for want of a better word, would appeal across class, race and age. It could hit the right note not only in urban areas, but also in villages and dorpies.
It doesn’t have to be this combination; it could be others.
Crucially, the point would be converging for a bigger focus than on the current crop of politicians’ plain pursuit of power and position, populism and politically connected interests. It would be to better serve society — and South Africa’s constitutional democracy — keeping in sight the bigger picture of fixing infrastructure, joblessness, poverty and violence that affect South Africans outside elite circles.
Such a getting-together could provide the needed shift in South Africa’s stalled body politic — and perhaps help reverse the drooping and declining public trust in institutions and political parties.
The final arbiter will be 2024. DM